‘Pearls before swine’ or heavenly messengers? The work of the Victorian Flower Missions

V0039719 A woman is making up posies and baskets of flowers. Coloured

In the second half of the nineteenth century the pollution of urban centres made the divide between town and country startlingly clear to many. Bringing a little of the country and suburbs to the inner city, however, were the Flower Missions, voluntary organisations that distributed flowers to the sick and poverty-stricken with messages of hope and comfort.

Flower missions – the donation, arrangement, and distribution of fresh flowers to the sick and needy – were said to have originated in the US in the late 1860s when a young lady, touched by the delight that her simple gift of flowers excited amongst some children, recruited others to make the gift a regular and more widespread one. In Britain, the first flower mission was instituted in Hull after a letter was published in local newspapers requesting violets, primroses, and other spring flowers. Several flower missions were set up in a similar way across Britain throughout the 1870s.

The scale of some of these operations can be glimpsed in an annual report of the Manchester Bible Flower Mission, founded in 1876. In its first year it managed to distribute just 22 bouquets of flowers, but in 1877 gave out an astonishing 17,418 gifts. Meeting weekly at the Young Men’s Christian Association, people brought along flowers from their gardens or – if they couldn’t reach the YMCA – took them to one of the Mission’s helpers whose home acted as a suburban receiving station. The day of mission work was a full one, with volunteers gathering in the early morning to make up bunches, then setting out to distribute them in the afternoon. Schoolteachers might involve their children in the collection and delivery of flowers: the George Yard Ragged School in Whitechapel took their flowers to the back streets of the East End where they brightened up many a gloomy terrace house.

With ‘floral pursuits’ including gardening and flower-arranging growing in popularity among the middle classes, their incorporation into philanthropic activity was perhaps a natural one. The East End Bible Flower Mission encouraged its members to grow flowers, offering packets of seeds free of charge. The missions also distributed fruit and vegetables or lavender bags; during the winter, arrangements of berries and leaves were constructed. Nothing was wasted: fallen petals were collected up to scent cupboards and drawers, or picked up by children who made “poppet shows” of them, ‘gumming them on to bits of broken glass to form a sort of kaleidoscope’ (don’t try this at home, children).

L0025245 A double flowered poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima): flower

Health and flowers

Alongside poor urban areas, hospitals were key targets of the missions. As Chambers’s Journal put it in 1876: ‘In times of sickness, the mind just as much as the body is in need of a more refined and delicate kind of diet … [N]othing could be more exactly suited for this particular species of mental food than flowers.’ Flowers were not mere trinkets for the sick, as Florence Nightingale explained in Notes on Nursing:

‘The effect in sickness of beautiful objects … and especially of the brilliancy of colour is hardly at all appreciated. … I shall never forget the rapture of fever patients over a bunch of bright-coloured flowers… Little as we know about the ways in which we are affected by form, by colour, and light, we do know this, that they have an actual physical effect.’

She also noted that the oxygen produced by flowers had a healthful influence (in contrast, hospital flowers in the present day have occasionally become objects of suspicion, suspected of stimulating allergies or transmitting infection).

The potential of plants

If flowers were ‘mental food’, though, they were also ‘mute messengers’. Naturalist and author Henry David Thoreau described flowers as reminders ‘that a wise purveyor has been [here] before [us]’, and flower missions were keen to spread God’s word. Attached to each bunch of flowers was a card, upon which was written text from the Bible, a short verse, or a proverb. Missions paid careful attention to the content and design of these cards, praising those beautifully decorated with shells or embroidery and lamenting those cards ‘cut in grotesque shapes, and with unsuitable verses’ that were occasionally sent in by volunteers. Well executed cards were often kept (as bookmarks, or hung on walls as a decoration) or passed on to loved ones – one lady sent hers to her son serving as a soldier in India.

Robert Gavin, The Flower Mission

Robert Gavin, The Flower Mission

Apart from biblical instruction, flowers could also offer a more practical education. In the gifts of flowers they received from the countryside, residents of the poorer areas of London glimpsed a different world and – if they were fortunate enough to receive a potted plant – were able to participate in the business of cultivation themselves. Despite the rather miserable assertion of one correspondent to The Spectator that ‘[m]erely to distribute bouquets [was] casting pearls before swine’, missions were quick to highlight the wider benefits that the gift of a plant could bring. A plant given to a sick girl in the slums apparently caused the washing of the windows to give it light and the opening of the windows to give it air, leading to a gradual cleaning and tidying of the whole house. In this way, we can see how the missions could be conceived of as one small part of a broader drive towards better urban sanitation and the provision of green spaces. The missions may, on first sight, seem like a rather frivolous exercise, but they were significant in encouraging people from all walks of life to take an interest in the natural world, as well as their own health and that of their fellow citizens.

Telegraphs, Electromagnetic Polkas and the Vienna New Year’s Day Concert

When I was a teenager growing up in a tiny border town in Romania, we used to look forward to the first day of the year, when the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra would play its traditional New Year’s Day Concert. I remember being fascinated by the glittering chandeliers, the massive, colourful bouquets of flowers, the guests from all over the world sporting their traditional attires and, of course, the music. Johann Strauss II’s famous waltz The Blue Danube was a favourite with us, perhaps because the music had a tinge of familiarity: the Danube was the artery which connected us to the rest of Europe and, via the Black Sea, even with the rest of the world. Listening to the waltz was like a reminder of the myriad ways in which our lives and histories had been intertwined with the history of this beautiful and sometimes capricious river. The Vienna Concert often became a topic of discussion among classmates and friends; for our music teacher, in particular, admitting that you didn’t watch the concert was just as objectionable as saying that you hadn’t done your holiday homework.

After I moved away and began my peregrinations around the world, I forgot about Vienna and its glamorous New Year’s Day Concert. Every now and then a friend would ask whether I was still watching it—to which my answer was an almost invariable “no”. But this year was different. As I was browsing idly the TV channels on the first day of the year, I happened upon the BBC broadcast of the event. What’s more, this year’s concert took place under the baton of the celebrated Indian conductor Zubin Mehta and marked the 650th anniversary of the University of Vienna and the 200th anniversary of the Vienna University of Technology. Little wonder then that the repertoire included compositions with intriguing names such as “Electro-magnetische Polka” (Electromagnetic Polka), “Accelerationen” (Accelerations), “Mit Dampf” (At Full Steam). For me, this was a new perspective on the New Year’s Day Concert and the music of the Strauss family, one which is quite connected with my professional interest in steam engines, telegraphy and other things electric.

It turns out that the Viennese waltzes and polkas were well attuned to the technological innovations of the nineteenth century. A quick look at the musical heritage of Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) shows the extent to which his music documented the technological developments of his age (or celebrated the old ones). Here are some examples, on topics ranging from the pigeon post to the telegraph and the telephone:

  • “Electro-magnetische Polka” (Electromagnetic Polka, 1852)
  • “Motor-quadrille” (Motor Quadrille, 1853)
  • “Schnellpost-Polka” (Express Mail Polka, 1854)
  • “Taubenpost Polka” (Pigeon Post Polka, 1860)
  • “Telegrafische Depeschen Waltzer” (Telegraphic Despatches Waltz, 1857)
  • “Motoren Waltzer” (Motors Waltz, 1862)
  • “Elektrofor-Polka” (Electrophorus Polka, 1865)
  • “Telegramme” (Telegrams, 1867)
  • “Durch’s Telephon Polka” (Over the Telephone Polka, 1890)
  • “Telephonische Nachrichten Polka” (Telephonic Messages Polka, 1894)

Many of these compositions were performed for specific audiences. The “Electromagnetic Polka”, for instance, was dedicated, quite fittingly, to the Vienna engineering students on the occasion of their ball (which, by the way, is Vienna’s oldest ball). The telegraph and telephone-themed compositions, on the other hand, were presented at the Concordia Ball, an annual event organized by the Concordia Association of Viennese Authors and Journalists. The association between telegraphy and journalism was hardly surprising, especially since in my doctoral dissertation I had dealt exactly with this topic: how the telegraph was used to report news in nineteenth-century India. But it was nevertheless fascinating to hear how Strauss transformed the sounds associated with the working of a telegraph instrument into music, thus creating a different type of archive which documents the history of this technology from an alternative, more … aural angle. If you listen carefully to the “Telegraphic Despatches Waltz” you can hear the tapping sound of the telegraph key; in fact, you can almost hear how the messages are transmitted over the wires.

Clearly, Strauss used music to celebrate the technological achievements of his time, but perhaps there was also more music about the telegraph than we usually acknowledge (there was also more noise about it, as many telegraph operators would have readily testified). For Strauss, the telegraph was not simply a medium for sending impersonal, concise, lapidary messages, as it often happened with market quotations and political news; it was also a means of transmitting music. The illustration below shows him seated in a corner, composing his “Telegrams Waltz”. In the opposite corner, his wife Henrietta Treffz, herself an accomplished mezzo-soprano, reads his musical telegram as it is being despatched via the five telegraphic wires of the musical stave. In many ways, this illustration is emblematic of a common theme in much nineteenth-century discourse: the telegraph as a vehicle for establishing connections between people, businesses, nations. But Strauss himself would have been aware that the telegraph could break, as well as make, connections. Rumour has it that in 1856, when the Viennese press published reports of his alleged marriage in St Petersburg, Strauss lost no time in disavowing the news. And he did so by telegraph.

Telegramme, Strauss

Call for Papers: Working with Nineteenth-Century Medical and Health Periodicals

Working with Nineteenth-Century Medical and Health Periodicals
St Anne’s College, Oxford, Saturday 30 May 2015

The nineteenth century saw an explosion in the number of medical periodicals available to the interested reader. Publications such as the Lancet and British Medical Journal are familiar names to many of us, still published and widely read today. The period also saw a huge range of smaller journals appearing, as practitioners increasingly organised themselves into more discrete medical ‘specialisms’ towards the end of the century. The Asylum Journal, later Journal of Mental Science, for example, sought to bring together the knowledge of those working in the expanding field of psychiatry, whilst The Homoeopathic World provided a forum for discussion for those practicing homoeopathic medicine, and was read both by medical professionals and laypeople.

As digitization projects advance, an increasing number of these medical periodicals are becoming available to researchers. We are interested in learning more about the nature and methodologies of current research projects that involve working with these journals, as well as broader issues surrounding this kind of research: digitizing material, locating journals (particularly obscure ones), and using and searching collections. We will be asking questions about how to read periodicals, how to situate these materials within a broader historical medical context, and how to construct narratives based on periodical research. In the longer term we would like to build up a network of people working closely on or with medical and health periodicals.

We welcome proposals from researchers working on medical periodicals across the world. If you would like to give a short (c.10 mins) presentation on your work in this area, please email medperiodicals@ell.ox.ac.uk by 13 February 2015, including an abstract of not more than 250 words and a short biography. If you would like to attend the workshop without giving a paper, please register your interest by emailing us at the address above.

This workshop is being co-hosted by the ERC-funded ‘Diseases of Modern Life’ and AHRC-funded ‘Constructing Scientific Communities’ projects at the University of Oxford.